Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Image via guthrietheater.org

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Joel Sass

During the intermission of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, something strange happens. For more than an hour, we have been watching what appears to be a very broad and crudely drawn farce. When we return, the play is still going for laughs, but the characters have deepened, and their interactions have become more natural. The result is a play that has its satisfying moments but that will cause some audience members to wonder whether it was really necessary to sit through the first act to get to the second.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Image via guthrietheater.orgDurang’s play takes place in Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where 50-something Vanya (Charles Janasz) and his adopted sister Sonia (Suzanne Warmanen) live in the house where they grew up with their parents, who were professors and theater enthusiasts (thus their children’s Chekhovian names). Their dubious tranquility is interrupted when their aging movie-star sister Masha (Candy Buckley), who has supported them since the death of their parents, shows up with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Joshua James Campbell) to attend a costume party being held nearby. The cast is rounded out by Vanya and Sonia’s possibly psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Isabell Monk O’Connor) and the neighbors’ visiting niece Nina (Ali Rose Dachis).

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike‘s extended opening scene is unabashedly devoted to exposition, alternating between a succession of “as you know …” style speeches in which the characters recite various episodes from their backstories and a series of incidents that allow the characters to demonstrate exaggerated versions of their most salient personality traits. We learn that Sonia is bitter at being ignored in favor of her glamorous sister, Masha is self-absorbed and in denial about growing older, etc., because the actors either tell us these things or behave in ways that explain very clearly who they are and what they are all about. The whole experience is frankly tedious, and things only partially warm up in the shorter second scene.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Image via guthrietheater.orgIt comes as a pleasant surprise, then, when the play improves notably in the second act. In the interim, all of the characters except Cassandra have attended the costume party, and the event has had an impact, particularly on Sonia and Masha. The losers experience small victories and the winners small defeats; new alliances form while old ones break; and, thankfully, all of these experiences are woven into the action relatively seamlessly. The play is drawn to its denouement with an extended rant by Vanya about the follies of the modern day — one that, based on some very specific cultural touchpoints, one suspects is actually the rant of the slightly older Durang. In any case, the speech, while perhaps a bit overloaded with clichés, is a pleasure to experience in Janasz’s carefully timed and gradually escalating rendition.

Once the second act makes it clear that Durang’s writing, Sass’s direction and the Guthrie’s cast are perfectly capable of adding up to engaging theater, one is inclined to regard the first act’s frustrations as the result of conscious artistic decision-making. It is almost as if the playwright and company are playfully thumbing their noses at the audience, saying that if we want to know who these characters are and how they got here, we must tolerate simply being told. But even if this was an artistic choice, some artistic choices just don’t work. Ultimately, while there is plenty to enjoy in Durang’s play, there is more than a whiff of the curate’s egg about it. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays on the McGuire Proscenium Stage through August 31.

Photos by Joan Marcus

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.